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This article was published in the April 2005 volume of the SWJ Magazine.

World War II vs the Global War on Terror

Finding the Enemy Center of Gravity



On the 60th anniversary of the Battle of the Huertgen Forest a group of U.S. officers participating in a staff ride were confronted with the question,  “In World War II everyone knew that taking Berlin was the objective; is there a similar objective in our ongoing Global War on Terror (GWOT)?”  This paper responds that while the fall of Berlin was the goal that would indicate complete military and political victory over the Third Reich, today’s GWOT lacks a similar single physical or symbolic objective that would spell the end of the conflict with radical Islamists.  Although the Second World War in the European Theater of Operations included competing ideologies, it remained a conventional conflict between states.  The GWOT is a war of competing ideologies that involves a long-term worldwide clash of systems between radical Islamism and the U.S.-led global system.[1]   For the United States to prevail in the GWOT, it must be able to fight and win an insurgency on a global scale (or pansurgency[2]) against an adversary who neither gives nor accepts quarter, and who has no respect for what are considered the accepted laws of war.   If the United States is to defeat the radical Islamist pansurgency, it will require the complete transformation of the Muslim World’s political and social structures.


There are some similarities between Nazism and radical Islamism.  Both include radical ideology as a response to externally imposed conditions, and present a social / economic panacea wrapped in cultural identity.  Both believe in a manifest destiny to re-shape the world system, and include violent intolerance as an integral aspect.  Ultimately both lead to totalitarian rule.  The key difference between Nazism and radical Islamism is that the Nazi source of power was the German state, while radical Islamism’s source of power is the attractiveness of a transnational ideology.  Nazi expansion was based on military conquest but radical Islamism’s expansion is based on information operations (IO) and proselytizing.  Nazis were fanatical but not suicidal, Radical Islamists are fanatical and suicidal (death is not only good, it is a reward). Nazi leaders acted as state leaders while radical Islamist leaders act as renegades outside of all accepted legal authority.  Nazi leaders were willing to negotiate with enemies.  Radical Islamists will accept only our unconditional surrender.  Our current conflict of ideologies is centered on the answer to the question posed by Plato and Aristotle of what constitutes a “good life.”  To us it is found in the individual rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  For the radical Islamist, it is the creation of an all-encompassing system based on submission to the will of God through the imposition of their interpretation of sharia (Islamic law) throughout the entire Muslim world.  

Learning from History

We face a dilemma similar to one that confronted (and confounded) the leaders of the Western Allies at the end of the First World War; how to re-shape the Middle East.  The decisions made by the British and the French on how to deal with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire shaped the modern Middle East and are the genesis of many of the problems the United States faces today in fighting the GWOT.  London and Paris believed they could re-shape the political fundamentals of the region by imposing an artificial nation-state system on the Middle East with no regard for existing ethnic and religious boundaries.  The British and French chose different paths for re-shaping the region, and both failed.  The British first sought to co-opt Islam in the hopes of creating an insurrection inside the Ottoman Empire, which would lead to its collapse and strip the Central Powers of a key ally.  The British hoped to find a “pope of Islam” who would rally the Arab world against the Turkish-dominated Ottoman Empire, while at the same time bolstering London’s hold on its imperial possessions.  This was a fundamental misunderstanding of the region and of the decentralized nature of Islam. The British switched courses of action and sought to install vassal secular governments based on concepts of Western nation states.  This policy also met with failure as Arabs in Iraq, Egypt, and Palestine, revolted against “puppet” regimes imposed by the British.  It was not until London allowed these areas a measure of self-determination that the situation was stabilized (but never resolved).  The French recognized the importance of Islam to the region, and made no effort to restrain it.  Paris, however, made a different error.  Instead of allowing the newly formed states of the region a measure of self-determination, it created separate conflicting communities in Lebanon and Syria, and then proceeded to back one against the other in order to maintain control over its mandate.  This division eventually led to the sectarian strife that plagues Lebanon to this day[3].  Imposing a solution on the Arabs did not work then, and will not work now.  From a practical standpoint, this means that Western democracy should not be considered a panacea to the region’s turbulent political environment.  Indeed, the imposition of Western-style democracy in Iraq is fraught with danger that would repeat some of the same mistakes made by Britain and France (a secular state viewed as a puppet and also a factionalized state involving Sunni, Shia, and Kurds). 


The issue that makes the GWOT so fundamentally different from other ideological conflicts in history is that it pits the U.S.-led global system against non-state actors who transcend political boundaries by appealing to religion, culture, and even pan-Arab nationalism to forge a de-centralized core of ideologically motivated insurgents fighting to overthrow the U.S.-led global system and replace it with one based on their radical interpretations of sharia.  This conflict is completely asymmetrical.  Unlike Nazi Germany, the enemy realizes it lacks the military capability to directly challenge the U.S.-led system on a global scale.  Instead, it relies on the strategy and tactics of the insurgent to selectively engage U.S./Coalition forces, (Khobar Towers, Kenya/Tanzania embassy bombings, the USS Cole bombing, 11 September) while striking in other venues to make political gains (e.g. the Madrid bombing, Bali bombing, kidnappings and murder of foreign nationals in Iraq) to erode Coalition cohesion.  Unlike other insurgencies, the GWOT is unique because of its scale.  It is in effect a pansurgency


The U.S.-Led Global System

This system includes not only norms of interaction, international law and treaties, but also institutions.  The most important aspects of the post-World War II world system are the West’s multi-national organizations.  They owe their origins to the 1941 Atlantic Charter of liberal principles established to guide the post-war world, and the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference on monetary order (both American initiatives).  These gave birth to various organizations, e.g. the U.N., General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and the World Trade Organization (WTO).  These organizations and the world order of open economies and dispute management were intended to prevent problems among Western industrial capitalist states - - not to fight Soviet communism, which was a separate system - - and they continue to endure despite the end of the Cold War.  Therefore, the underlying Western-inspired world order (here after referred to as the “global system”) remains intact and is even expanding as Russia, China, and other states of the former Soviet Union join Western organizations.


A different kind of enemy

An analogy between the radical Islamists to past enemies may be the Imperial Japanese soldiers of WWII.  In both cases, the adversary is governed by a fatalistic philosophy.  In WWII, it was the concept of dishonor to oneself and ones family if a soldier failed to fight to the end—to “die for the Emperor.”  In the case of the radical Islamists, to die in the “holy war” is the ultimate sacrifice to Allah and guarantees a place of honor in the afterlife.  In addition to the concept of the ultimate sacrifice, we are also faced with the problem of “unconditional surrender.”  The U.S. position toward the Axis Powers was unconditional surrender.  This forced the United States and the allies to prosecute the war to this outcome—leading to the fanatic resistance of the Japanese soldiers under their own code of honor (Bushido), and ultimately requiring the use of nuclear weapons to force Tokyo’s surrender.  In the case of the radical Islamists, we are the ones who have been confronted with the demand for “unconditional surrender” through all of the “declarations of war” against the West issued by Usama bin Laden since 1995; with the threat of violence should these conditions not be met.  Given this situation, where we are faced with a fanatically dedicated, totally intractable adversary, for whom no compromise is possible; the only option for victory for the United States is the discrediting of the radical Islamist ideology and the subsequent elimination of its support base.  Therefore, the war against the Islamist pansurgency must be waged on two fronts – direct action against the terrorists themselves, as well as elimination of radical interpretations of the Koran and Islamic teachings used by the Islamists to justify their jihad

The COG and Endstate

If the United States is to succeed in winning the pansurgency, it must target the enemy’s center of gravity (COG) – the attractiveness of its ideology among the Arab and wider Islamic community, which in turn leads to either direct or indirect support of Islamist insurgents around the world.  The United States needs to convince the Arab and Islamic world that the U.S.-led global system – based on political freedom and economic prosperity – is a far better alternative than the backward-looking radical Islamist agenda based on imposition of sharia.  There will never be a “final victory” in this conflict in which radical Islamist teachings are totally eradicated.  Instead, the end-state will be the reduction of radical Islamism to a local “nuisance” vice a worldwide threat, and continued monitoring to suppress any future attempts to export “holy war.”

Ends, Ways, and Means

To succeed, the United States must accomplish several key goals.  The Islamist ideology is bolstered by three pillars: widespread Arab/Islamic doubt regarding Washington’s intentions in the region (pro-Israel bias, anti-Arab crusaders, interest in oil, etc.), the tacit and covert assistance of states (namely Iran, but including Syria and others) for radical Islamist groups, and the growing alienation among Arab populations and their often absolutist governments (Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Egypt, Tunisia, etc.).  Nullifying each of these pillars becomes a goal and an End of a unified national strategy.  In meeting these objectives, U.S. military power is only one of the Means to be directed at countering the threat.  Military means can be used to target specific individuals and cells, and then in rolling back radical Islamists in their safe havens.  These are the Ways in which the military instrument of power can be employed to achieve the desired Ends.  In addressing the broad range of activities needed to achieve the desired Endstate, a unified plan, involving all aspects of national power is the only solution to this strategic problem.  For example; a key Way to achieve these Ends is an offensive IO campaign designed to discredit our enemy’s ideology.

A Global Fight

In order to defeat the Islamist threat on a worldwide scale, a three stage approach: containment, roll-back, and long-term suppression appears the most probable course of successful action.  The first stage in containing the enemy was the elimination of the only state controlled by the enemy – Afghanistan.  The removal of the Taliban regime and denial of the prime safe haven for the al-Qai’da jihadist movement forced the enemy to operate without this contiguous safe haven.  At the same time, elimination of some senior leaders, disruption of the “command structure,” freezing and confiscating their financial assets, and establishing a modicum of homeland defense in the United States to deny access and disrupt any cells already in place has denigrated the ability to conduct spectacular actions in the United States on the scale of the 11 September attacks.

·         Containment.  A key element in the containment phase that directly attacks the enemy COG is the elimination of their ability to freely disseminate their ideology.  A robust IO campaign designed to discredit our enemy’s ideology should be launched including actions such as: closing down internet sites and internet communications (a critical capability for the insurgents) which support the radical Islamists, a propaganda effort to counter the negative image of the United States in the Arab language media over the issue of Israel-Palestine and as an “occupying power” in Iraq, offensive IO to target the reputation of key militant leaders and highlight the suffering they cause to Muslim civilians, as well as taking the moral high ground by explaining the ideas and values that are the foundation of our society and freedoms we enjoy.  This must be a decentralized campaign employing all media, governmental and non-governmental, dedicated to spreading a broad message espousing the values and benefits of the U.S.-led global system.  Until we begin this campaign we abdicate the initiative in what is the most critical battlefield in this war of ideas; the conflict of perceptions over what constitutes a “good life.”   

·         Removing leaders.  Elimination of Adolf Hitler and the senior Nazi leadership would probably have led to a negotiated surrender of Germany and an early termination of hostilities.  This may have been possible during the early stages of bin Laden’s pansurgency, but is no longer an option today.  Although Bin Laden is a symbolic (even mythic) figure to the international jihadists, he lacks the absolute power of a Hitler in Germany or an Emperor Hirohito in Japan.   Since the late 1990s, the Islamist radicals have become a widespread, loosely connected movement of autonomous cells and groupings, over which no single individual or group has true command and control.  These jihadists operate under a decentralized command and control and a general “commander’s intent”, often transmitted by bin Laden in videotaped messages or other released notes; but most importantly, the franchise groups need no further guidance.  Their ideology includes a goal and endstate, the overthrow of apostate Muslim regimes and the imposition of sharia throughout a restored Islamist caliphate.  Elimination of bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri, or Abu Musab Zarqawi in Iraq, will not eliminate the problem – in fact, it might even harden the will of the enemy, since the individuals would simply become “martyrs” who died for the cause.   Containment must focus not only on the leaders, but on identifying and neutralizing existing militants and their supporters in those countries where their presence has been tolerated, ignored (or even supported) and inadequately combated (in places such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen, and other Arab states), and in which the radical Islamist ideology is still not aggressively suppressed.  This must be accompanied by a conscious, dedicated effort on the part of the rulers to supplant the radical Islamist theology by a mainstream, moderate Islam, which promulgates tolerance of non-Muslims vice the holy war against the infidels, espoused by the radicals.

·         After containment is rollback.  The next phase should be to eliminate the enemy’s ability to directly attack the United States.  This effort must focus on the enemy presence in areas that offer the most opportune launch pad for such attacks, such as in Europe.  Radical Islamists are actively pursued by local governments, but only when identified as posing a threat, or when tied to specific legal offenses.  Furthermore, radical Islamist operatives are able to blend into the rapidly growing Muslim communities, much like guerillas in previous conflicts.  After 11 September, and in some cases only after the Madrid bombings, did European governments begin to seriously hunt down suspected radical Islamists, with or without direct links to terrorist organizations.  The key to eliminating the threat, however, is to convince the moderate Muslim community, which constitutes the majority of the Muslims in Europe, to distance itself completely from the jihadists and to actively take part in efforts to identify and neutralize the radicals.  The European nations have only recently begun a serious effort to work with Muslim residents in this regard.  This effort is vital if the European Muslim communities are to be persuaded to report propaganda efforts, radical teaching in local mosques and meeting places, and suspicious activities by their fellow Muslims, etc.  Without this active participation of the Muslim communities, the radicals will continue to “swim in the Muslim lake” in Europe.  Elimination of the enemy within from Western nations would rollback the Islamist movement back to its roots, primarily in the Arab Muslim states.  Although this does not constitute victory, it will drastically reduce the threat of direct attack on our soil.  In order to achieve our desired end state, rollback must be followed by a third phase of suppression.  

·         Long-Term Suppression.  This must be a multi-faceted effort focusing on reforming the social and political order within Muslim states, coupled with the strict control of the Muslim clerics, Koran schools and public media to insure that the teaching of militant jihadist doctrine is not tolerated.  This will force the remaining radicals to conduct their activities underground, and eliminate open recruiting and support, particularly the ability to raise and move funds used to conduct terrorist activities.  In the end, it may be possible to reduce the threat to level it was prior to the rise of al-Qai’da, a regionally contained, low-level underground subversive movement with the ability to conduct local terrorist acts, but no longer a worldwide threat to the U.S.-led global system.  Given the deep seeded historical, economic, and social roots of the radical Islamic movement, there will never be a final victory in which radical Islamist teachings are totally eradicated.  The best that can be achieved will be the reduction to a local nuisance vice a worldwide threat, and continued monitoring to suppress any future attempts to export holy war.

A Stake in Their Future; Re-Shaping the Political Landscape

Any plan to discredit the Islamist agenda must convince the Arab and Islamic world that they can thrive within the U.S.-led global system.  Afghanistan can be touted as a success story, and if Iraq can follow in its footsteps (a government that operates under international norms with an Iraqi flavor; where the Iraqi citizens start benefiting from the global economy), then U.S. policy will be off to a good start.  Washington must aim at providing the same opportunities to citizens of other states whose governments reap the benefits of the global system (such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, the states of North Africa, etc.) but whose people do not.  Many of these states have authoritarian governments that are stable, and often pro-U.S. (such as Egypt, Tunisia, Kuwait, or Morocco).  Nevertheless, these same states, where many of the citizens have become disillusioned with their authoritarian governments, are ripe targets for radical Islamists, who use them as recruitment and support hubs.  Political reform, in which the citizens of a country have a stake in their future, is critical to any plan to re-shape the region.  This does not require the imposition of western-style democracy, but it will force Washington to work with its friends (including criticizing them and holding them accountable for their actions) to bring political and societal reforms where the cycle of hopelessness and despair (on which radical Islamism thrives) is broken and replaced with one of hope in the future.

Winning Trust: Solving the Arab-Israeli Conundrum

Any effort designed to re-shape the region must begin with winning over the trust of the Islamic world.  Most Muslims perceive U.S. Middle East policy as unfairly biased and even hostile.  The best way to reverse this trend and win back this trust is for the United States to play a leading role in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is a dominant issue for the Arab and Islamic world.  In fact, U.S. relations with the Arab world have been strongest in the aftermath of Washington’s deep involvement in the Arab-Israeli peace treaty.[4]  Solving the Arab-Israeli conflict will not end the ideological pansurgency, but it is the necessary pre-requisite for changing Arab/Islamic perceptions of U.S. intentions in the region. 

Text Box: Ideological Wars
“Wars fought in the name of ideology, ethnicity, or religious or cultural primacy, tend to be value based and reflect demands that are seldom negotiable.”  (Joint Pub 3-0, p III-30)


In his seminal work Negotiating Peace: War Termination as a Bargaining Process, Paul Pillar examined 142 wars from 1815 to 1980 in an attempt to discern patterns and trends on how wars might end.  His research reveals five methodologies for conflict termination:  Capitulation (in which one belligerent imposed the solution on the other), by extermination (in which one belligerent ceased to exist), by absorption (into a larger conflict), by withdrawal of one of the belligerents, by intervention of a third party (such as an inter-governmental organization), or by negotiation[5].  None of these methodologies, however, offer a clear path for the United States to seek victory in the GWOT.  Our enemies clearly seek a victory by capitulation – in which they impose their system on the rest of the world.  Victory for Washington however, is based on the maintenance of our position of primacy in the U.S.-led global system.  As a result, there is no Berlin to be taken (or even a Berlin Wall to crumble) which will result in a symbolic end of the conflict.  Instead, an active, and very lengthy campaign designed to challenge the enemy until his ideology is discredited and irrelevant becomes the optimal path for the United States to follow.

MAJ Andrew Harvey is a West European Foreign Area Officer currently assigned to Headquarters U.S. Army Europe and Seventh Army in Heidelberg Germany.   He previously taught in the Department of Joint and Multinational Operations, Command and General Staff College, Ft. Leavenworth, KS.

Mr. Stan Kluth (SGM, USA Ret.) is an Intelligence Analyst for the Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Headquarters U.S. Army Europe and Seventh Army in Heidelberg Germany.

Mr. Ian Sullivan is the Senior Middle East Analyst for Headquarters, U.S. Army Europe and Seventh Army Deputy Chief of Staff, G2 in Heidelberg, Germany.  Prior to his posting to Heidelberg, Mr. Sullivan held several positions at the Office of Naval Intelligence in Washington, DC. 

[1] John G. Ikenberry. “The Myth of Post-Cold War Chaos” Foreign Affairs, May/June, 1996. 

[2] The concept of pansurgency was pioneered by Dr. Ilana Kass from the National Defense University for a briefing to both the White House and to Congress.  Dr. Kass defines pansurgency as the organized movement of transnational actors seeking to overthrow values, cultures, or societies on a global level through subversion and armed conflict with an ultimate goal of establishing a new world order.

[3] David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace:  The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Making of the Modern Middle East, (New York: Owl Books, 2001).

[4] In mediating the Camp David Accord (1979) between Israel and Egypt, Washington was able to transform Egypt from a state firmly entrenched in the Soviet camp into a staunch U.S. ally.  Similarly, Washington’s willingness to support a regional peace conference (eventually the Madrid Conference) led to Syria’s support and commitment of troops to the Coalition in the First Gulf War.  

[5] Paul Pillar, Negotiating Peace: War Termination as a Bargaining Process, (Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1983).

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